Engines of Our Ingenuity
No. 1365: 1776

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1365.

Today, we visit Colonial America. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

The mood of Colonial America was a special mix of self-assurance and a passionate belief in freedom. For me that mood is embodied in an image from the spring of 1786. It is the sight of John Fitch's steamboat laboring earnestly up the Delaware River propelled by an array of Indian canoe paddles. Twenty-one years before Fulton, those paddles boldly proclaimed Fitch's amateur but functional freedom from any canon of engineering design.

To understand colonial technology and invention we need to understand the intensity of the Colonial impulse to be free. Freedom was a much-used word that swept in more than just political independence from England. It included cultural freedom from Europe. America's first notable poet, Joel Barlow, repeatedly asserted our cultural independence. He brashly called America a "theatre for the display of merit of every kind." Sometimes this impulse toward freedom was downright arrogant. A typical anonymous Revolutionary War song, set to the skirl of fife and drum, ends with the lines:

And we'll march up the Heav'nly streets,
And ground our arms at Jesus' feet.

Other times it resulted in gentler expressions of the same sentiment. Francis Hopkinson gave us a widely-sung, lilting melody with the title, My Days Have Been so Wondrous Free. But always present was a direct, innocent, homemade, and somehow completely engaging quality. It captures our imagination. It is strong and affecting, and (most important) it is completely amateur.

Again and again the mood of Revolutionary America touches us with that direct, simple-but-brilliant intensity. Historian Kenneth Clark visits Jefferson's Monticello, and he says:

He had to invent a great deal of it himself ... . Doors that open as one approaches them, a clock that tells the days of the week, a bed so placed that one gets out of it into either of two rooms -- all this suggests the quirky ingenuity of a creative man working alone outside any accepted body of tradition.

We find self-taught Ben Franklin giving us basic insights into the nature of electricity. We find a small band of homegrown intellectuals inventing a new kind of government of and by the people.

The engineering of this new land had the mind-set of people who knew that they could do whatever they wanted to do. They knew they could do it better than, and without reference to, what'd been done before. Whether it was designing the perfect capital city, building the Erie Canal, or marching their armies "right up the heavenly street," they knew nothing was beyond them.

The worm of self-doubt afflicts so much we do. We've been to the mountaintop of technological accomplishment. Edison, Ford, Bell have subsequently come and passed on, leaving us to feel disconnected from those embryonic years of unreasonable confidence.

That worm did not eat into the heart of the people who built this country. With clear, childlike self-assurance, those people quite simply did do the impossible.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


This episode is based on fragments of many sources. See, for example, Silverman, K., A Cultural History of the American Revolution: PAINTING, MUSIC, LITERATURE and the THEATRE in the Colonies and the United States from the Treaty of Paris to the Inauguration of George Washington, 1763-1789. New York: Columbia University Press, 1987.

This is a revised version of Episode 30.



From the 1832 Edinburgh Encyclopaedia

Fitch's First Steamboat Propelled with Indian Canoe Paddles


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1998 by John H. Lienhard.

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